PREP BASKETBALL: Bentonville edges Fort Smith Northside, clinches top seed for state tournament

Tom Halbmaier, Bentonville girls basketball coach, said he is pleased with the new 6A-West Conference schedule for the 2022-23 season. The conference will have nine teams as Fort Smith Northside joins the league, moving in from the 6A-Central..(Special to the NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Beach)
Tom Halbmaier, Bentonville girls basketball coach, said he is pleased with the new 6A-West Conference schedule for the 2022-23 season. The conference will have nine teams as Fort Smith Northside joins the league, moving in from the 6A-Central..(Special to the NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Beach)

FORT SMITH -- In the biggest game of the year with the 6A-West Conference title on the line, the spotlight wasn't too bright for senior Abbey Kate Sanders and the Bentonville Lady Tigers.

Sanders hit two key 3-pointers in the second half to help Bentonville pull away for a 44-42 victory against Fort Smith Northside. The season sweep of Northside for Bentonville helped secure another conference title and plenty of momentum now entering the state tournament as a top seed.

"I was so excited for this game because this is what we have been working for all year," Sanders said. "Before the season when I heard Northside was in our conference, I was a little nervous. We haven't beaten them too many times in our history. Doing it twice in a season is very special."

Bentonville's sweep was just the second of Northside with the other happening in the early 1990s. The Lady Bears had three looks at the basket in the closing seconds, but they couldn't convert those attempts into points to either take the lead or tie.

"This was just a perfect storm for us," Bentonville coach Tom Halbmaier said. "I thought we played really great defense. I was really proud of how hard our girls competed on the road at a place it is tough to win at.

"I think this is now conference titles in four of the past five years. These seniors deserved this. But I do want to shout out every player on this team. It was a complete effort to do what we did this year."

The matchup was a battle of experience against youth with Bentonville starting all upperclassmen while Northside starts just one upperclassman. The more veteran team in the Lady Tigers won, but the Lady Bears didn't make it easy.

Bentonville (24-6, 13-3) made six 3-pointers in the game with four coming from Sanders. She hit a deep one for a 32-21 lead in the third quarter then another to start the fourth quarter and take a 39-31 edge over Northside (22-5, 12-3).

"I just tried to let the game come to me and figure out who is shooting it good," Sanders said. "If there is an open shot for me, I will take it. But I love to share the basketball with my teammates. We love to be selfless and create great shots. That's just who we are."

Sanders and Sam Rhuda each scored a team-high 12 points and finished with six or more rebounds for Bentonville's balanced attack. Ella Campbell and Anna Lee Kulka chipped in eight points each.

Sanders' overall effort, which included three assists, didn't go unnoticed from her coach.

"Abbey did a great job taking care of the basketball and hitting big shots," Halbmaier said. "She is the type of kid that is so skilled. I thought she did a really good job managing the game. When Northside tried to speed up the game, she was right there to slow it down where we wanted it."

Bentonville jumped out to a 19-10 lead after the initial quarter of the game behind hitting four 3-pointers. Northside used a 7-0 run with every point from its lone senior, Karys Washington, to help cut that lead to 25-17 at halftime.

The Lady Bears with a free throw from Washington was able to get the Lady Tigers' advantage down to 44-42 with 28 seconds left. It capped a 9-0 run. But Bentonville didn't allow a point after that to seal the road conference-deciding victory.

Washington finished with a game-high 18 points for Northside on senior night. Cherish Blackmon also finished with 16 points for the Lady Bears.


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